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About the Author
Eric Abrahamson is a professor of management at Columbia University's School of Business, and author of Change Without Pain. David H. Freedman is the author of three books, and is a business and science journalist who has written for The Atlantic Monthly, Newsweek, and Wired, among others. Abrahamson lives in New York, and Freedman in Massachusetts.
Read an Excerpt
A Perfect Mess
By Eric Abrahamson David H. Freedman
Little, BrownCopyright © 2006 Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThe Cost of Neatness
If a cluttered desk is a sign of a cluttered mind, of what then, is an empty desk? -Albert Einstein
Kathy Waddill is telling a standing-room-only house of several hundred rapt professionals, most of whom are taking notes on broad yellow lined pads sheathed in expensive- and complex-looking leather binders, about the deep client discomfort they should be prepared to confront when setting up a first visit over the phone. "'I'm the worst you've ever seen,'" Waddill imitates, her voice husky with emotion before it breaks to a mortified whisper. "'I'm overwhelmed. I'm so embarrassed.'"
After making the appointment, don't call the client later on to confirm it, she cautions her audience, her martial voice back, because he may weaken and cancel. Just show up. Pens flutter in the audience, and many grunt in recognition of past tactical errors. When you're with the client, she continues, you'll be tempted to turn up the lights to get a good look, but resist the urge. It's often more useful and politic to turn the lights down or even off, to get a sense of how things really stand by contemplating them in the dark.
To hear of the delicacy with which these clients must be approached, you might imagine they are cloistered sufferers of disfigurement, exotic neurological tics, or tawdry, addictivepassions. But actually they're just messy or at least believe themselves so. Waddill is a professional organizer, here in San Diego to address the annual conference of the National Association of Professional Organizers, or NAPO.
An entire industry of sorts has sprung up, quickly picking up steam over the past decade, to nurture the notion that if only we were more organized with our possessions, time, and resources, we could be more content and successful, and our companies and institutions could be more effective. Take into account the hundreds of books, the vast array of home- and office-organizing aids, the classes and seminars, the software, the television shows, the magazines, and the organizational consultants that all purvey some variation on the theme of straightening up, rearranging, acquiring highly effective habits, planning your day/week/life, restructuring organizations, and rigidly standardizing processes, and it's easy to see that neatness and order have become a multibillion-dollar business.
NAPO is the pointy tip of the organizing spear-these are people, after all, who do nothing but organize-and represents a high-growth business in its own right. Founded in 1985 with sixteen members, in 2005 NAPO boasted more than three thousand, up from fifteen hundred just eighteen months before. The conference has attracted 825 members, 275 of them for the first time. These figures and many more are effortlessly ticked off by NAPO president Barry Izsak, a pixieish fellow who blows into rooms at racewalking speeds and is given to dramatic rushes of speech sprinkled with sarcastic asides. Izsak is a studied role model for the highly organized. Eschewing the standard convention uniform of Hawaiian shirt and khakis in favor of a neat brown suit, when interviewed he takes notes on his own responses, offers a document containing precomposed answers to a range of anticipated questions, and, eyeing his interviewer's flimsy, narrow, reporter's notebook with a wince, urges a replacement from an array of more sophisticated writing tools he keeps on hand, including a laptop computer and the sort of handsomely encased broad yellow lined pad that apparently is to the professional organizer what a utility belt is to Batman. But Izsak, a former operator of a pet-sitting service, admits that like many professional organizers he must still constantly fight disorganized tendencies in himself-and almost immediately demonstrates this by discovering, after much shuffling through binders, that he has misplaced his notes for the keynote speech he is about to deliver.
NAPO is not only getting larger, it is also growing in influence and cachet. Professional organizers used to migrate to the field disproportionately from the ranks of teachers, secretaries, and other relatively low-paying careers, notes Izsak. Now, he says, former lawyers and MBA-packing executives are as likely to be jumping in, with incomes for successful organizers climbing into six figures. But even if the average annual income for a NAPO member were only, say, $35,000, then NAPO organizers alone (not all organizers join) would be bringing in a combined $100 million a year. Their clients, of course, are spending much more than that to get organized, since a typical get-organized treatment involves purchasing a number of ancillary organizational products and sometimes requires a complete makeover of a room or section of a home or office, in some cases all the way through heavy construction. The magnitude of these sorts of outlays has not been lost on office- and home-product vendors such as Pendaflex, Smead, Rubbermaid, and Lillian Vernon, all of which are paying sponsors of the NAPO conference. NAPO has also been able to gain significant attention for Get Organized Month (January), a recent upgrade of its successful Get Organized Week.
The NAPO conference is not what an outsider might expect. Most of the lectures, panels, and shoptalk aren't about organizing per se but, rather, about the marketing of organizing skills. The problem, it seems, is not that there aren't enough people in need of organizing. Quite the contrary. As one conference panelist puts it, "Way more people need our help than there are organizers on the planet to help them." Still, there are real challenges, including getting on potential clients' radar screens and convincing them to fork over anywhere from $200 for a bare-bones "assessment" up to thousands of dollars for a thorough organizational working over. But perhaps the biggest obstacle to signing clients-one that comes up prominently in almost all the conference speakers' spiels-is the deep shame that people feel over what they regard as their messy, disorganized homes, offices, and lives. That is, people are too ashamed to even let professional organizers know how big their disorganization problems are.
Fortunately, there's plenty of advice at the conference for getting the messy to suck it up and summon the professional help they desperately need. One panelist advises organizers to point out that not only is the potential client's future happiness and success on the line, but so are those of her children, who after all will take their parents' organizational habits, or lack thereof, as a model. Another warns organizers against turning up their noses at seemingly limited cries for help, such as the ever-popular "I want to reclaim my dining room table." When the organizer gets to the house and surveys the mess on the table, he will easily be able to link it to systemic problems that will require a larger organizing effort, inevitably including the coveted assignment of straightening out the garage.
The names that organizers give to their companies, speeches, and services-"Chaos to Calm," "Oh, So Organized!," "Realizing Dreams through Organization and Productivity," and so forth-suggest the transformative, if not the miraculous. "We change people's lives," says Izsak. "You can write that down." But when it comes to the question of how organizers are actually supposed to go about effecting these changes, the drill tends to be surprisingly simplistic. Successful organizers all seem to operate on catchy variations of what boils down to this very basic advice: Throw out and give away a bunch of stuff. Put the rest on shelves. Set up a tightly scheduled calendar. Repeat. Many organizers freely admit there isn't much more to organizing than that. Waddill, a big draw at the conference with her brash, intimate stage presence, featuring sarcastic mimicry of hapless clients, makes a sort of comedy routine of it. "The client has boxes piled up against the wall," she tells the audience, "and I say, 'A shelving unit gives you the same pile, but you can pull any box out when you need it.' They say, 'Oh, wow!' I say, 'Maybe there's so much paper on the floor because you don't have a wastepaper basket in here.' They think I'm the smartest person in the world. Sometimes it feels like shooting fish in a barrel. But that's why we get the big bucks." The audience laughs and nods enthusiastically, and the last two lines, delivered as a sly, conspiratorial stage whisper, leave Waddill awash in seismic ovation.
Clients seem to eat it up, too-enough to support some forty specialties within professional organizing. There are organizers at the conference who focus on organizing homes, others on offices, and some on organizing relationships. (As one organizer puts it, "People can be clutter, too.") There are Christian organizers here, organizers of the "chronically disorganized" (more on this later, but don't worry-you probably don't qualify), and a few who bill themselves as organizing "all aspects of life." One organizer presents a long talk on the ins and outs of disposing of old documents. (Don't flush them down a toilet where city workers might identify them; don't use them as lining for pet cages; and don't burn them in the sink-though an outdoor bonfire can be cathartic, as long as you poke through the ashes to make sure there are no big pieces left.) Linda Rothschild, an organizer to the rich and famous, is said to be routinely summoned to the estates of the likes of Julia Roberts. Rothschild looks the part, bringing a dash of hipness and glamour to a conference where they are in short supply. She was born to organize, she explains. By the time she was eight, she had cross-indexed her collection of 45 RPM records. "I get more done between 5:30 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. than most people get done in the whole day," she says, conceding that not having children helps in that regard. "We organizers are a group of recovering perfectionists," she adds.
Not easily found at the conference, though, is an answer to the basic question: what's the evidence that being neat and organized is worth the trouble? Not once, in dozens of conversations, speeches, and panel appearances, does an organizer broach the subject of costs versus benefits.
A few scattered comments vaguely address the benefits side. One organizer, for example, shares with her audience the goal she dangles in front of potential clients who are considering reorganizing their kitchen. "You should be able to cook a meal from one spot, without having to move around the kitchen a lot," she says. (Just think of the calories you'll avoid burning.) Several organizers pronounce that the average person spends an hour a day looking for things. But no one seems to know where this figure came from. The claim does, however, appear in many variations in organizers' brochures and Web sites-executives spend an hour a day looking for papers in their office; parents spend an hour a day looking for items in the home; and so on. One organizer specializing in time management promises to reduce time-wasting problems like perfectionism-all you have to do is take his four-week course on time management.
Something a little more substantive comes from the ebullient Sharon Mann, who is not a professional organizer but rather a sort of spokesperson for Pendaflex, here at the conference to captain the filing-system company's exhibit booth. Sharon has achieved minor celebrity in the world of office organization by fronting the hundred-thousand-member "I Hate Filing Club" on the company's Web site. The site claims that eight minutes of organizing activity per day returns eight hours of time savings per month. Once you get past the somewhat transparent device of mixing per-day and per-month time frames, you end up with the less-impressive-sounding claim that you need to spend three hours per month to get back eight hours per month. Here are some of the ways the Web site advises investing those three hours:
1. Use colored labels on your files, and cut filing time in half.
2. Given that there are thirty-seven hours of unfinished work on the average desk at any one time, buy "filing solution" products and get the work off your desk.
3. Buy a quality label maker like Dymo's LabelWriter 330 Turbo to print your file labels, because 72 percent of people who print file labels end up wasting time wrestling with jammed or stuck labels in printers.
Let's take these in order:
1. Because whatever information a colored label might convey could also be conveyed with a word, the most time that a colored label could save you is whatever time you save by glancing at a color rather than reading a word, perhaps a half second for very slow readers. If you spend three hours a day filing, then saving a half second per label examined will save you one and a half hours, or half your time, only if you examine the labels of 10,800 files in those three hours-in other words, if you spend just about all your time examining file labels. One could imagine unusual situations where a color scheme might save several minutes at a shot, as, for example, if there were a need to find the only green-coded file in a vast sea of red-coded files, or if the entire population of yellow-coded files had to be pulled. But since most filing work involves not just looking at file labels but examining the contents of files, doing things with the contents of files, walking to and from filing cabinets, and creating new files, the time saved with colored labels will be just a tiny portion of the total filing work. This will come as a relief to the roughly 8 percent of people who are color blind.
2. This advice seems meant to imply that you have saved yourself thirty-seven hours of work by clearing your desk. But if you have thirty-seven hours of unfinished work, and the work then gets filed, don't you end up with thirty-seven hours of unfinished work that is now hidden away in files instead of at hand on your desk? Plus, you've spent a chunk of time filing it, not to mention the time spent purchasing filing-solution products.
3. Other research indicates that 0 percent of people who don't bother printing labels for their files spend a single minute wrestling with jammed or stuck file labels.
Izsak says he can prove organizing pays off with a little demonstration he likes to throw into his presentations. In this demonstration he takes two decks of cards, one shuffled and one ordered by suit and rank, and gives each to a different person. He then calls out the names of four cards and has the two deck-holders race to find the cards. Naturally, the person with the ordered deck always wins handily.
But who puts the neat deck in order? A little experimenting with people of modest card dexterity shows that on average it takes 140 seconds to order a deck, plus another 16 seconds to find four cards in the ordered deck for a total of 156 seconds; it takes about 35 seconds to find four cards in an unsorted deck. One could argue that you only have to order the deck once, and then you can find cards more quickly many times. But in that case, you also need to account for the time it takes to replace the four cards in an ordered deck, about 16 seconds-with cards, as with most things in life, it requires repeated effort to maintain order-compared to the fraction of a second it takes to stick four cards anywhere in an unordered deck. Thus, with a preordered deck, it takes 32 seconds to find and replace four cards, versus 36 seconds with a shuffled deck, giving the preordered deck a 4-second advantage. But since it requires 140 seconds to order the deck, taking that trouble wouldn't pay off unless you need to repeat the task at least thirty-five times, and you're meticulous about maintaining the deck's order between each attempt. In real life, decks tend to get shuffled sooner or later, requiring 140 seconds each time to restore order.
Indeed, organizers freely admit that ongoing maintenance is critical to being organized, and many concede that most clients they organize fail to stick with the program and lapse back into disorder. But that's okay-you just need to have the organizer come back every so often to get back on track. Rothschild tells of one client who had her come to her home twice a month for six years before Rothschild finally suggested that the relationship wasn't working out.
When asked how they determine whether a potential client is likely to get more out of organizing than she puts into it, professional organizers at the conference respond that they don't make that determination; they just provide clients with whatever help they're looking for. Aside from the fact that this answer leaves unexplained the need for all those deft marketing techniques aimed at hesitant clients, it seems surprising that professional organizers have no more rules about when it's appropriate to provide their services than do tattoo artists. Fewer rules, actually, since organizers happily work with children-some even specialize in it.
Excerpted from A Perfect Mess by Eric Abrahamson David H. Freedman Copyright © 2006 by Eric Abrahamson and David H. Freedman. Excerpted by permission.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A string of interesting anecdotes, mostly on the theme that a little unstructured disorder fosters creativity and innovation. And then the book just stops, as though the authors had run out of things to say.
The first half of A Perfect Mess is charming and informative. At the midpoint, I dreaded picking it back up. Every one of my reader friends told me to skim it, but I slogged on. And what a slog it was. Someone else took over the helm at the midpoint, and A Perfect Mess became a doctoral thesis. I'm glad I did hang on until the end, however, because the final two chapters had quite a bit to say about creativity and "mess" that I found worth reading. It took me a month of picking it up and putting it back down to finish this one, and I believe i should have listened to my friends. I could have skimmed it.
A real eye opener. When is the last time someone defended being messy? Such a wake up call for a culture obsessed with organizing shows, magazines, stores! The author backs up his claims with studies and statistics but more importantly raises the point that maybe your messy desk works just fine even if it doesn't look like a picture from the Container Store catalog.
I listened to this while (you've gotta love this) deep-cleaning and organizing my house. The author uses many of the same techniques to exlpain why a little mess is good for you that Malcolm Gladwell uses to explain why snap thinking is a good thing (See: Blink). State a thesis, throw in some facts, throw in some anecdotes, and throw in some interesting conjecture and you've got a book! Abrahamson doesn't have quite the finesse of Gladwell, but that still makes this an interesting read (or listen). It's really funny in some parts and makes me glad I have a little bit of a mess on my desk and in my home (I have a four year old, and to me, if you can't tell a child lives in a home where the child lives, you're doing something very wrong). However, while making statements about how the mind is evolutionarily set up to handle mess, he ignores the great stress that many people feel when confronted with the messiness of others. Maybe we can handle clutter well, but there is something to be said for laying out the outfit you're going to wear the next day or letting your employees know what is expected of them in the long term.On the whole, this book was entertaining and informative and certainly gives the reader a number of great excuses to NOT file, sort, arange, or organize. I think his editor may have taken this lesson too much to heart, though-it tends to hop around a lot and many of the stories are very non sequiter.
Subversive. Heretical. Blasphemous. Sacrilegious. Profane. A Perfect Mess: The Hidden Benefits of Disorder; How crammed closets, cluttered offices, and on-the-fly planning make the world a better place by Eric Abrahamson & David H. Freedman is a dense, irreverent, thought-provoking rallying cry against the modern march to perfectionism. It is charming. The message? “Dude, chill.” Creativity thrives in chaos. Many people are stifled by keeping exact time, alphabetical files, flat views of bare table tops, linear thinking. Drawing from examples in restaurant staffing, Internet search engines, hospital management and too many other realms to detail, the authors delight in demonstrating that messes are often highly prized and extremely effective tools for sparking and supporting innovation. And guess what – our Universe doesn’t quite work to perfection either. Brownian motion – the movement of solid particles suspended in a liquid and bounced around by faster-moving molecules in the liquid – is random. Einstein’s analysis of Brownian motion led to confirmation that molecules and atoms exist. Abrahamson and Freedman don’t insist control and orderliness are automatically unproductive – airplane cockpits, for example, are painstakingly designed to provide optimal control to pilots. They don’t absolve us from paying our bills on time, and they unhesitatingly acknowledge the obstacles and pain faced by people with ADD, hoarding disorder or other such challenges. But chill, dude. Fittingly, I found this book in a Goodwill, in an only slightly-organized selection of “Home Improvement” books. And I hope the photos are inspiring. Lauren Williams, Certified Professional Organizer, Owner, Casual Uncluttering LLC, Woodinville, WA USA